Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

As he has for the past twenty-one Septembers, Jack Gladney watches from his office the moving-in rituals of students arriving on campus. The amazing array of station wagons has arrived, laden with everything the incoming students will need for a successful year, and they crawl their way to the dormitories.

The vehicles contain suitcases with both lightweight and heavier clothing; bedding for inside and sleeping bags for the outdoors; equipment such as rafts, saddles, skis, backpacks, and bicycles; electronics such as radios, stereos (including records and cassettes), computers, mini refrigerators, and hot plates; sports paraphernalia like soccer balls, tennis rackets, hockey and lacrosse sticks, and bows and arrows; necessary personal items such as birth control and controlled substances; and of course junk food ranging from potato chips to cereal, fruit chews to popcorn, suckers to mints.

It is a spectacle to see. Students greet each other effusively, sometimes even with tears, after summers “bloated with criminal pleasures, as always.” The parents all look around in a daze, seeing “images of themselves in every direction.” Their suntans are perfect, their makeup is perfectly applied, and they all have the same cynical look on their faces.

The mothers are “diet trim” and seem to know everyone’s names; the fathers appear somehow substantial and are content just to wait until the process is completed. This ceremony, more than anything else that will happen all year, reminds parents that they are part of a collective, “spiritually akin, a people, a nation.”

Gladney leaves his office and walks down the hill into town. It is a quiet and rather staid old town where people sit on their porches in the shade of stately trees. He and his wife, Babette, and their children from previous marriages live in a house at the end of a quiet street that was once a wooded, hilly area. Now, far below, an expressway runs. At night, the sparse traffic provides a “remote and steady murmur” at the edges of the family’s sleep.

At College-on-the-Hill, Jake Gladney is the head of the department of Hitler studies, something he created in 1968. When he proposed building an entire department around Hitler’s life and work, the chancellor quickly acquiesced and the program became an “immediate and electrifying success.” (The chancellor, who later became an advisor to Nixon, Ford, and Carter, died on a ski lift in Austria.)

As Gladney walks home, he sees a policewoman checking parked vehicles for potential violations, and he sees homemade signs, posted on telephone poles, seeking help to find lost cats and dogs.